What is Champagne?
First: there is Champagne, and there is sparkling wine.
Champagne is a sparkling wine made by the methode champenoise (Champagne Method) in the region of Champagne, France. If it is not from Champagne, then please do not call it Champagne.
Yes this does seem to be one of those snobby rules but once you have tasted ‘real’ Champagne, you will understand why the French get so upset about people calling Freixenet ‘champagne’. There is simply no contest between real Champagne and everything else that sparkles.
Now that I’m off that high horse, understand that I point this fact out not so you can run around and correct people at the New Year’s party, but rather so you won’t feel foolish when/if someone corrects you. Yes, 99% of the people will call everything sparkling ‘champagne’, and if you are a nice person you will let them do so. It’s kind of like your grandfather calling your new Porsche a ‘Volkswagon’: he doesn’t know any better, he doesn’t mean any harm, and there’s no point in embarassing him for his ignorance.
That said, the rest of this article will deal with Champagne; we’ll cover other sparkling wines in the future.
Champagne Types and Styles: What to Buy
Generally speaking, the most expensive bubbly is ‘vintage’ Champagne, but that does not necessarily mean it is the best. What ‘vintage’ means is that all the grapes were taken from one specific year ‘ and doing this tends to be a fairly expensive process, depending on the yields (crop size) that year, barrel aging, storage demands, and other factors. Indeed, a ‘vintage’ Champagne will tend to be the most complex a Champagne ‘house’ makes ‘ and with that complexity comes a price of fifty bucks or more (some bottles are a few hundred).
That said, Vino Joe’s cheap and dirty secret is to look for a ‘non-vintage’ (or, ‘NV’) Champagne, which could be as little as twenty bucks. A non-vintage sparkler is made with grapes from several years, but more importantly, is made in the ‘house style’. This means that a Champagne house will consider the NV their signature bottling, and try to make it in the same style, with nearly the same flavors, all the time. In other words, you can count on a NV from a particular house to be the same year in and year out. It may not be as precise a formula as Coca-Cola, but it will be pretty darn consistent as far as wine goes.
But which one to choose? If you are just starting to get into the real thing, don’t fret too much about which bottle to pick. As long as it says Champagne, France, on the label, the quality will be good and you’ll be happy with your purchase. A great idea is to throw a Champagne party for New Year’s, and designate each person to bring a different brand of NV, so you can taste them side by side and find out which style you like best. But still, which brands should you buy? Start with the better-known houses, such as Pommery, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Moet and Chandon, Taittinger, Mumm, Louis Roederer, Ruinart, Piper-Heidseick, Perrier-Jouet, and Laurent-Perrier, for example. These big names have a reputation to keep, so their bubbly will be solid if not mind-blowing. If you are willing to be a little adventurous, try a bottle from a lesser known, smaller house. I’ve enjoyed NV’s from Besserat de Bellefon, Gosset, Lanson, Duval-Leroy, J-P Lamiable, and Pascal Doquet — and you may well find even more interesting bottles that are great values.
The main thing to look for on the label — besides seeing Champagne, France somewhere — is the word ‘Brut’ (or occasionally ‘Extra Brut’). This will ensure that you purchase a dry Champagne — as opposed to a sweet one. Unless, of course, you think you’d prefer something sweeter, in which case you could try ‘Extra Dry’, ‘Dry’, ‘Demi-Sec’ or ‘Sweet’. For the most part, though, especially if you’ll be drinking the bubbly with food, you’ll want to stick with ‘Brut’.
Champagne needs to be cold, and the best way to get it cold is to chill it in a bucket of ice water for about 30 minutes. If you have a polished silver or genuine crystal Champagne bucket embossed with the family crest, that’s great, but don’t fret if you don’t have anything so fancy; any bucket-like container will do. For example, a construction bucket, a beach pail, or even a stock pot will do the trick, so long as it can hold ice water and the bottle. Check with Martha to see how you can craft something to decorate it, stay here to learn more.
Here’s a trick that will get you out of a warm bottle jam. Let’s say the guests are about to arrive, or it’s a quarter to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and you’ve forgotten to chill the bubbly. Fill your bucket about halfway with warm (yes, warm!) water, and add about a cup and a half to two cups of salt. Stir it up until the salt is complete mixed in, then add the bottle and as much ice as will fit. As saltwater freezes at a much lower temperature than plain water, the bottle should be nicely chilled in about ten minutes. Need it even quicker? Pour in a bottle of rubbing alcohol or cheap vodka to drop the freeze point even lower. Just don’t use the ice cubes for drinks afterwards.
When serving sparkling wine, use whatever you want ‘ martini glasses, styrofoam cups, shelled coconuts, whatever. When serving Champagne, please please please use real glass or lead crystal Champagne flutes (see the photo). Stay away from the large-mouthed ‘Marie Antoinette’ glasses — use those for serving sherbert. The big mouth will let all the wonderful bubbles escape in seconds. Use good flutes that are tall and narrow so that the bubbles and the aromas stay inside the glass. Pour the Champagne in small doses in several glasses at once, then top off each as the bubbles subside. A good Champagne should take you three or four go-arounds to fill the flutes.
Oh wait, we forgot to give you tips on popping the cork ‘
Opening a Champagne Bottle
The loud ‘pop’ of a Champagne bottle evokes instant visions of celebration and happiness. However, the louder the pop of the cork, the worse it is for the bubbles: the pop is the sound of effervescence escaping!
That said, open a cheap bottle of sparkling wine for entertainment effect and ambiance, and open your Champagne bottles quietly. The removal of the cork should be no louder than a mouse fart.
To accomplish this, take your time and remove the cork slowly; you will actually be pushing the cork in a little as you turn the bottle and pull it away from the cork.
When in the process of opening, Always always always have one hand over the cork, to keep it from knocking someone’s eye out if it gets loose before expected. This is no laughing matter: the pressure inside a bottle of Champagne is three times that of a car tire, and a direct hit can cause serious damage. A good idea is to use two small dish or hand towels: one held over the cork, and one to help grip the cold wet bottle. Start by removing the foil on the outside of the capsule ‘ remember, one hand on top of the cork, the other hand removing the foil. There will be a wire cage with a little loop that you need to pull down and twist; most take about four twists to loosen. Carefully remove the cage; this is where most inebriated souls have accidents: they rip the cage off and the cork goes flying off with it. With the cage removed, grip the cork with your strong hand and turn the bottle slowly with the other. You want to turn the bottle and pull it away from the cork at the same time. Alternate between gently coaxing the cork out and pushing it back in until the cork is almost completely out. At that point, if you gently work it out you should get a slight hiss and a touch of what looks like smoke. May the party begin!